By Ann Vorisek White
The average American child watches four hours of television every day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.1 Videotapes and video games add to the amount of time children spend staring at a screen. How does all this viewing affect us?
Television harms our children and families in many ways. Before TV, meals were a time for families to reflect upon the day and linger in peace or lively discussion over home-cooked meals. Today, most American families regularly watch television during dinner.2
Mealtimes are hurried, with children and adults eating in silence, eyes glued to the screen, or gobbling down their food in order to return to the family room to resume their interrupted television watching.
Childhood illnesses and injuries leading to bed rest used to be special times for bonding and family rituals. We can recall books that were read to us or quiet games that we played while recovering from chicken pox or a broken leg. Today, sick children spend their days watching videos and television.
In the past, holiday gatherings found children playing outdoors and adults gathered in lively discussions. Today, children are more apt to gather around the television or computer than to take up a game of kick-the-can or capture-the-flag. In fact, some family gatherings seem to revolve around TV, with Thanksgiving dinners prepared to suit the timing of football games.
As a result of the many hours they spend in front of the TV, children are in effect being parented by network producers rather than by their own parents. Television teaches children that rude, irresponsible behavior is not only acceptable but also glamorous. Children learn about sex and violence apart from their consequences, emotional attachments, and responsibilities. They learn to act impulsively, without reflection or advice from elders. Qualities such as wisdom and processes like thinking through a problem are difficult to express on a television screen, especially when the medium depends on sensationalism and shock rather than character and insight.
US Surgeon General David Satcher stated in a 2000 report on youth violence that violent television programming and video games have become a public-health issue and that “repeated exposure to violent entertainment during early childhood causes more aggressive behavior throughout a child’s life.3 The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that children who regularly watch violence on television are more fearful and distrustful of the world, less bothered by violence, and slower to intervene or call for help when they see fighting or destructive behavior.4 A Los Angeles Times story reported that 91 percent of children polled said they felt “upset” or “scared” by violence on television.5 A University of Pennsylvania study found that children’s TV shows contain roughly 20 acts of violence each hour.6 After watching violent programs, the APA reports, children are more likely to act out aggressively, and children who are regularly exposed to violent programming show a greater tendency toward hitting, arguing, leaving tasks unfinished, and impatience.7 The first two years of life is when the greatest and most rapid development of the brain occurs. As all parents know, a child’s mind is different from an adult’s, and the differences go beyond children’s innocent and often poetic perceptions of the world. While the adult brain has two distinct hemispheres, the infant brain is a single receptacle of sensory experience in which neither side has developed or overpowered the other. Until they learn language, children absorb experience using a kind of nonverbal “thinking,” characterized later in the brain’s development as a right hemispheric function. When language begins, each hemisphere seems to be equally developed. In its structural and biochemical sense, the brain doesn’t reach its full maturation until about age 12.
By maturation, the left hemisphere typically develops as the dominant side, controlling the verbal and logical functions of the brain, while the right hemisphere controls spatial and visual functions. For many years, such development was thought to be genetically predetermined and unaffected by life experiences. Today, however, this belief has changed. Although the acquisition of language appears to be universal, we now recognize that the abilities required for expression and reasoning are not automatic. Watching television threatens the development of these abilities because it requires a suspension of active cognition.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not watch TV or videos, and that older children watch only one to two hours per day of nonviolent, educational TV. Young children watching TV are routinely described as transfixed, passive, and nonverbal. One of television’s appeals for parents is that it serves as an immediate way to silence and sedate active toddlers. But such nonverbal absorption does more than simply relax and amuse preschoolers. Language spoken by actors on TV does not have the same effect as real-life language experiences. The Journal of Broadcasting reported that language skills among American children declined as TV viewing time increased.8
In real life, conversation is reciprocal and participatory; it allows time for reflection, questions, and encouragement. Television, however, is a one- way street, and you had better stay glued, ask no questions, and take no time for thought, because the next scene will appear in seconds and there is no rewind. As a result, children learn not to think but to remain passive and unresponsive to whatever stimulus appears before them. Television conditions them to absorb images without mental effort and to expect rapid change. Since young children’s questions and imaginations are the cornerstone of their learning processes, remaining unresponsive hour after hour, day after day, year after year surely affects their intellectual, emotional, and moral development. Fantasy play, a critical component of childhood, allows children to explore different situations with varying responses and outcomes. While books and storytelling nourish fantasy play, fantasy watching does not foster the same reaction. The US Department of Education reported that 81 percent of children ages two to seven watch TV unsupervised,9 which means that young children enter a world of fantasy without the guidance and oversight of an adult. Research by the Yale University Family Television and Consultation Center reveals that imagination decreases as TV watching increases.10 TV teaches children to be amused by its images instead of encouraging kids to create their own. It dulls the mind by the power of its fast-moving pictures, supplanting the mental activity necessary to follow in the mind’s eye a book or a storyteller’s tale. The Yale Center reports that complex language and grammar skills are directly linked to fantasy play, and that children who create fantasy play are more tolerant, peaceful, patient, and happy.
Many children become habituated to TV by their parents, who desire a break from their child’s activity and attention. However, the short-term benefit of a quiet, mesmerized child may actually lead to a greater dependence on adult supervision by creating children who are less capable of amusing themselves. By supplanting their imaginations, creating fast-paced pictures, and transforming active minds into passive recipients, TV teaches mental lethargy.
For a child raised on hourly doses of TV, boredom is a common component of later childhood. In refusing to use TV during the preschool years, parents may save themselves from constantly having to create amusements for their children.
The best way to keep TV from becoming an issue with children, of course, is not to begin using it. If a TV is present in the home, it is vital to establish clear rules on its use and to maintain these rules. Never make TV a reward or a punishment; this only heightens its power. When starting the withdrawal from TV, explain why you are making these changes and that it is not a punishment. The first month will be the most difficult. Children may cry or plead, but you can remain firm if you keep in mind that you are freeing them from an addiction.
It is also imperative that you help your children learn how to fill the time that they formerly spent watching TV. Work with them to nurture interests, discover hobbies, and explore new possibilities. Begin a nightly read-aloud for the entire family. Take walks after breakfast or dinner. Share your hobbies-sewing, knitting, baking bread-with them. Learn to play instruments and make music as a family. Encourage children to help with work around the house and yard. Visit neighbors and relatives. Tell stories and pass on your family history. Build a birdhouse. Go bowling. Go sledding. Finger paint. Color. Practice yoga together. Involve your children in the daily activities of the house, and encourage yourself and your family to rekindle the flame of exploration and discovery, away from the draw of the flickering blue screen.
1. American Academy of Pediatrics, “Television and the Family” (June 1999), www.aap.org .
2. D. A. Gentile and D. A. Walsh, Media Quotient: National Survey of Family Media Habits, Knowledge, and Attitudes (Washington, DC: National Institute on Media and the Family, 1999).
3. “NAPNAP Supports Surgeon General on TV/Video Stance,” press release, National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates & Practitioners, Cherry Hill, NJ, February 2, 2000.
4. American Psychological Association, “Violence on Television” (report), www.apa.org .
5. “Living in Fear,” Los Angeles Times , August 23, 1998 .
6. G. L. Gerbner, M. Morgan, and N. Signorielli , “Living with Television: The Dynamics of the Cultivation Process,” in J. Bryant and D. Zillman, eds., Perspectives on Media Effects (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1986).
7. See Note 4.
8. Gary W. Selnow and Erwin P. Bettinghaus, “Television Exposure and Language Development,” Journal of Broadcasting 26 (Winter 1982): 1.
9. US Department of Education, “Strong Families, Strong Schools : Building Community Partnerships for Learning” (report), 1994.
10. Dorothy Singer, J. Singer, and D. Zuckerman, Use TV to Your Child’s Advantage: The Parent’s Guide . Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center , 1998. npin.org/library/1998/n00049/n00049.html
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Baldwin, Rahima. You Are Your Child’s First Teacher . Celestial Arts, 2000.
Bennett, Steve and Ruth. 365 TV-Free Activities You Can Do with Your Child . Bob Adams, 1991.
Healy, Jane M. Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds-For Better and Worse. Simon and Schuster, 1998.
The Killing Screens: Media and the Culture of Violence (video recording). Sut Jhally, executive producer and director. Media Education Foundation, 1994.
Liebert, Robert M. The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth. Pergamon Press, 1988.
Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Morrow, 1978.
Minow, Newton . Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, TV, and the First Amendment. Hill and Wang, 1995.
National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates & Practitioners (NAPNAP), 1101 Kings Highway North, Cherry Hill, NJ 08034, 856-667-1776, www.napnap.org .
National Institute on Media and the Family, 606 24th Avenue, Suite 606 , Minneapolis , MN 55454 , 888-672-5437, www.mediaandthefamily.org .
Postman, Neil. The Disappearance of Childhoo d. Delacorte Press, 1982.
Trelease, Jim. The Read-Aloud Handbook . Penguin Books, 1985.
TV-Turnoff Network, 1611 Connecticut Avenue, NW 3A, Washington , DC 20009 , 202- 518-5556, www.tvturnoff.org .
US Senate Judiciary Committee Staff Report , “Children, Violence, and the Media,” 1999.
Wilkins, Joan Anderson. Breaking the TV Habit . Scribner, 1982.
Winn, Marie. The Plug-In Drug . Penguin Books, 1985.
For more information about television, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering :
“Television and Film Entertainment,” no. 50; and “Preventing TV Addiction: Ten Hints for Parents,” no. 31.
Ann Vorisek White lives with her husband, Harry, and their two cats in the Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut. She has a master’s degree in library science and is a children’s librarian in Litchfield County.